Many men who fought in World War II expected to be sent into harm’s way. Some of the bravest, most selfless men looked forward to that challenge with open arms.
One of those men was Navy Cmdr. Edwin Evans, who pulled off one of the most important and unlikely victories in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
In his youth, Evans was determined to get into the Naval Academy. But his heritage as a Native-American from Oklahoma made that hard, considering the prejudices of the time, so he was initially denied entry. Instead of giving up on that dream, though, Evans joined the National Guard and then transferred his enlistment to the Navy. After a year of service there, he entered a fleet competition and was accepted into the Naval Academy’s Class of 1931.
More than a decade later, it was nearing the end of World War II. Evans was the commanding officer aboard the USS Johnston, which was part of a group of destroyers pulling escort duty for the 7th Fleet’s Escort Carrier Task Unit 77.4.3, known as Taffy 3. They were in the waters off the Philippine coast, about to engage in what became the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
On Oct. 25, 1944, the heavy units of the Japanese fleet – including the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built – came into view off the coast of Samar. They headed right for the Americans.
As the U.S. escort carriers launched their planes to get away from the superior enemy fleet, Evans didn’t wait for orders. He understood that if the Japanese got through Taffy 3, there would be nothing left to protect Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops, who had landed on Leyte’s shores. So instead of fleeing from the lop-sided fight, he took his thinly armored “tin can” destroyer and turned into it.
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, who told Evans’ story at the 239th Navy Birthday Ball, can tell the rest of the story from here:
“Ernest Evans ordered flank speed and went straight at the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers. The Johnston’s crew furiously worked the 5-inch guns, scoring hit after hit on the Japanese capital ships. She fired off a spread of torpedoes that took the bow off a Japanese heavy cruiser.
“The Johnston attacked whole columns of Japanese ships again and again. In the process, the little destroyer was hit repeatedly, her topside wrecked, holed clean through by the enemy’s big cannon.
“Finally, after two hours of fighting against overwhelming odds, the battered and bloody Johnston had enough, and she slipped beneath the waves, along with much of her crew and her skipper, Ernest Evans. But Evans’ aggressiveness in the face of overwhelming odds scattered the Japanese warships, blunting their attack and saving the U.S. carrier force, along with dozens of fully laden troop transports.”
To score that hard-fought victory, Evans gave his life, the life of more than half of his crew, and his ship. For that bravery and selflessness, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
More accolades for his efforts came in during the decades since. In 1955, the destroyer escort USS Evans was named in his honor, and in 2013, Naval Station Newport’s Surface Warfare Officers School named its virtual simulator for shiphandling training after Evans. The story of the Battle of Leyte Gulf is also meticulously depicted in the best-selling book, “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.”
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